Change Agent: Paul Soglin, Mayor of Madison, Wis.
At a White House meeting Wednesday (Jan. 24) where President Donald Trump highlighted his infrastructure plan, Mesa, Ariz., Mayor John Giles predicted that the Trump plan “will be a huge blessing” for cities.
Giles said before the Trump infrastructure presentation that he wanted answers such as “How are we going to fund what we all agree is a big problem in our country, which is the aging infrastructure, the bridges and the highways across our country that are no longer safe.” After the session, Giles said he’s satisfied that Trump is following up on his infrastructure vision that he promoted during the campaign.
Giles was in D.C. for a U.S. Conference of Mayors (UCM) meeting. The White House had invited about 125 of the more than 250 mayors who were at the UCM session to a brief infrastructure presentation. The mayors networked with federal administrators following the presentation.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry was also at the White House meeting. She has proposed a $5.4 billion transit initiative for her city that includes a light rail system and improvements to bus service in the Metro area. The project will require federal dollars to supplement local taxes.
Mayor Barry met with federal officials who may have a role in Nashville’s transit proposals in the future. She discussed the transit initiative with D.J. Gribbin, the president’s special assistant for infrastructure policy.
“We have a huge transit initiative coming down the pike, and we want the federal dollar investment,” Barry said. “So I needed to go and pitch that to the folks who matter.”
About the mayors in attendance at the White House session, Barry explained, “They want what’s best for their cities, and they need infrastructure dollars, too.”
“Whether its conventional funding for roads or public transportation, we are falling dangerously behind – from a safety standpoint and an economic standpoint,” the mayor reiterates.
Madison, Wis. Mayor Paul Soglin doesn’t expect the Trump infrastructure plan to offer much substance. “When you look at what the cities are already doing, and the previous commitments from the federal government, the Trump plan will be a step backwards not forwards.”
Soglin adds: “Given the year of failure by the Trump White House to accomplish nothing but a massive tax giveaway – it is impossible to predict the outcome of their infrastructure plan.”
Soglin offers utility construction as an example: “Local governments increased water and sewer funding from $63 billion in 2001 to $118 billion in 2015. The Trump proposals are a trickle.”
Soglin says the federal government has a critical role in infrastructure spending, and that role is now shrinking. “Cities and states are already making massive commitments to roads, better water systems, schools, and public transit. The federal government is reducing its traditional commitments.”
Technology in infrastructure projects
The Axios-released draft of the purported Trump infrastructure plan lists some incentives for organizations that offer innovative solutions. One criteria in the selection process to obtain federal funding is whether an infrastructure project’s developers plan to incorporate new technology. A project’s new technology characteristics count for 5% in the federal funding evaluation process in the Trump infrastructure plan.
The Trump plan’s Infrastructure Incentives Initiative includes a Transformative Projects Program that makes available federal funding and technical assistance for innovative and transformative infrastructure projects. The funding competition is targeted to viable projects unable to secure financing through the private sector due to the uniqueness of the proposed project.
“Applicable projects must be exploratory and ground-breaking ideas that have more risk than standard infrastructure projects, but offer a larger reward profile,” states the purported Trump plan document.
Technology investment makes sense if governments and businesses aren’t doing it just for the sake of doing it, says Mick Gronewold, a professional engineer and an owner of Fehr Graham. His company provides civil engineering, environmental planning, and funding solutions for commercial, industrial, institutional, and government clients.
“If technology creates a sustainable product – and it increases safety or reduces manpower – then it’s worth it. We shouldn’t just invest in technology because it’s a shiny object,” Gronewold tells Icons of Infrastructure. He doesn’t believe in investing in technology without limits. “That would be a waste of taxpayers’ money. More of the tax dollars that are being collected should be directed to address our aging infrastructure,” Gronewold concludes.
How likely will Congress pass a Trump infrastructure plan in 2018? Very likely, if it meets certain requirements, says Attorney William Eliopoulos at Rutan & Tucker LLP in Palo Alto, Calif.
“Until we see a plan, it’s impossible to tell whether Congress will approve it. It is true that there is widespread bipartisan support for new infrastructure in Congress, so a well-crafted infrastructure plan can be expected to pass Congress as long as it scores well in terms of financial impact as a long term budget item,” says Eliopoulos. He is chair of his firm’s Infrastructure/Public Private Partnerships (P3) Practice Group.